—Accurately communicating true beliefs
We have a moral duty to be honest. This duty is especially important when we share ideas that can inform or persuade others.
Intellectual honesty is honesty in the acquisition, analysis, and transmission of ideas. A person is being intellectually honest when they, knowing the truth, state that truth. Intellectual honesty pertains to any communication intended to inform or persuade. This includes all forms of scholarship, consequential conversations such as dialogue, debate, negotiations, product and service descriptions, various forms of persuasion, and public communications such as announcements, speeches, lectures, instruction, presentations, publications, declarations, briefings, news releases, policy statements, reports, religious instructions, social media posts, and journalism. It encompasses not only written and spoken prose, but also visual aids such as graphs, photographs, diagrams, and other expressive mediums.
Intellectual honesty is an applied method of problem-solving, characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude, which can be demonstrated in a number of different ways including:
- Ensuring support for chosen ideologies does not interfere with the pursuit of truth;
- Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one's hypothesis;
- Facts are presented in an unbiased manner, and not twisted to give misleading impressions or to support one view over another;
- References, or earlier work, are acknowledged where possible, and plagiarism is avoided.
Harvard ethicist Louis M. Guenin describes the "kernel" of intellectual honesty to be "a virtuous disposition to eschew deception when given an incentive for deception".
Intentionally committed fallacies and deception in debates and reasoning are called intellectual dishonesty. We have a moral duty to be honest. This duty is especially important when we share ideas that can inform or persuade others.
The objectives of this course are to help you to:
- Better understand intellectual honesty,
- Help you improve the intellectual honesty of your communications,
- Increase your ability to identify lapses in intellectual honesty,
- Improve civil discourse, increase trust, increase our depth of understanding, attain new insights, and find common ground in our communications and beliefs.
- Prevent truth decay.
All students are welcome and there are no prerequisites to this course. If you are having difficulty with any of the material, it may be beneficial to begin your studies at the beginning of the Clear Thinking curriculum. Students interested in learning more about the moral virtues may be interested in the Wikiversity course on virtues.
Intellectual honesty is important because the alternative, intellectual dishonesty, is harmful. Here are some examples of harm caused by a lack of intellectual honesty:
- The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution misrepresented the events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident to provide a pretext for escalating the Vietnam War.
- The MMR vaccine controversy started with the 1998 publication of a fraudulent research paper in The Lancet linking the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to colitis and autism spectrum disorders. The claims in the paper were widely reported, leading to a sharp drop in vaccination rates in the UK and Ireland and increases in the incidence of measles and mumps, resulting in deaths and serious permanent injuries. An investigation by journalist Brian Deer found that Andrew Wakefield, the author of the original research paper linking the vaccine to autism, had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence, and had broken other ethical codes. The Lancet paper was partially retracted in 2004, and fully retracted in 2010, when Lancet's editor-in-chief Richard Horton described it as "utterly false" and said that the journal had been "deceived".
- Tobacco industry advertising practices determined to be deceptive, misleading, or harmful, resulted in the tobacco master settlement agreement where the participating manufacturers agreed to pay a minimum of $206 billion in compensation for damages over the first 25 years of the agreement. The book Merchants of Doubt explores the global warming controversy, tobacco smoking, acid raid, DDT and the hole in the ozone layer and argues that in each case “keeping the controversy alive” by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached, was the basic strategy of those opposing action.
- The book Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins is a controversial 1989 school-level textbook published by the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics. The textbook endorses the pseudoscientific concept of intelligent design—namely that life shows evidence of being designed by an intelligent agent which is not named specifically in the book, although proponents understand that it refers to the Christian God. Subject experts have described the book as "a wholesale distortion of modern biology", "worthless and dishonest", and an "attack on evolution." The book was "being used as a vehicle to advance sectarian tenets and not to improve science education". The book was prominent in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District where the court found the contains outdated concepts and flawed science, as recognized by even the defense experts in this case.
- The best-selling books The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, A Million Little Pieces, and other fake memoirs have been exposed as frauds.
- Three percent of the 3,475 research institutions that report to the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity, indicate some form of scientific misconduct.
- Pseudoscience, Pseudo-scholarship, quackery, conspiracy theories, and cults are sustained by intellectual dishonesty.
- News media, journalists, and other opinion leaders including fake news websites that are overtly or covertly dedicated to promoting a particular ideology often compromise intellectual honesty to show allegiance to the chosen ideology.
- Many confidence tricks succeed in cheating victims because people are misled about the intellectual honesty of the perpetrators.
- Many hoaxes work because people are misled about the intellectual honesty of the perpetrators. These are often more fun than harmful, but opinions differ widely.
- Identify communications that influence your beliefs or decision making. These communications may include: product advertisements, sales materials, blog posts, social media, news reports, medical advice, nutritional advice, editorials, sermons, appeals to support some issue, organization, or cause; political speeches, books, lectures, research reports, documentary films, rumors, or routine conversations.
- Consider how important it is to you that these various communications are intellectually honest.
- To what extent do you assume each of these communications is intellectually honest?
- Recall some time when an intellectually dishonest communication has misled you.
- Whenever you are the source of influential communications, how much care do you take to ensure you are being intellectually honest?
Exercise Moral Virtue
Intellectual honesty is primarily a matter of intent.
Intellectual honesty requires you to be open and honest as you communicate with others. Intellectual honesty entails a duty of truthfulness.
Good faith is the virtue of truthfulness. You might call it sincerity, truthfulness, honesty, veracity, candor, or authenticity, the particular word chosen is less important than the deep respect for the truth they each convey. Truth corresponds to reality. Good faith requires our acts and our words to agree with our inner life. Good faith is the opposite of mendacity, hypocrisy, duplicity, and other forms of bad faith both publicly and privately. Good faith requires first that you be honest with yourself. Good faith desires truth.
While good faith does allow for errors, it does not tolerate any intent to deceive.
Good faith requires authors to be generous and accurate in acknowledging collaborators, attributing sources, and scrupulous in not plagiarizing.
- Complete the Wikiversity module on Good Faith.
- Act in good faith.
- Be transparent and provide the whole truth.
- Avoid half-truths, misleading statements, deceptions, and easily misunderstood statements.
- Disagree only in good faith.
- Consider taking the Pro-Truth_Pledge.
Intellectual honesty requires you to be ready to learn from others.
At its core, humility is openness to learning. It is deciding that facts are more real and more important than ego. It is the opposite of ego involvement. It is the decision to overcome the asymmetry of our first-person viewpoint. Humility is recognizing that what matters to you really is as important as what matters to me. Humility provides balance to our confidence.
- Complete the Wikiversity module on humility.
- Expect to learn from others in every intellectual encounter. Identify what you are learning as you learn it. Acknowledge when you have been persuaded to change your mind because of learning something new during this encounter. Stipulate new areas of agreement as they occur.
- Listen carefully to someone you disagree with until you can understand and express their point of view.
- Identify your errors and correct them. Take responsibility for errors you make, insults you express, offense taken by others and apologize promptly.
Intellectual honesty requires you to be flexible and accepting of other’s opinions, while being firm on matters of fact.
“You're entitled to your own opinions”, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declares, “but you're not entitled to your own facts.” This succinctly (and rather bluntly) captures the extent and essential boundaries of tolerance.
Tolerance is essential in the realm of opinion and has no place in the realm of fact.
Discerning the distinction between fact and opinion—the essential skill of tolerance—can be difficult. It requires us to apply a robust theory of knowledge.
- Complete the Wikiversity module on tolerance.
- Carefully determine if areas of disagreement are matters of fact, controversy, or opinion.
- Remain firm on facts, thoughtful on controversy, and flexible on differences of opinion.
Intellectual honesty requires you to be consistent in the statements you make, the positions you advocate for, and to remain ready to identify and rectify inconsistencies in your statements as we learn together. Search out hypocrisy and equivocation and eliminate it in yourself and others.
Fidelity is the virtue of consistency. It is the basis for reliable thought, reason, morality, trust, and loyalty. It allows us to predict future behavior based on the history of past behavior.
Fidelity is most valuable when it is applied to the worthiest ideas, deeds, principles, or affiliations.
- Complete the Wikiversity module on fidelity.
- Strive for consistency in yourself and others.
- Identify, explore, and resolve inconsistencies as they occur.
We engage in civic discourse in part because we want civilization to advance and prosper. The purpose of civility is to create the conditions that allow civilization to advance and prosper. Intellectual honesty requires us to remain civil throughout our discourse.
We live in a perpetual choice between conversation and violence. Choose civil conversation and avoid violence.
- Complete the Wikiversity module on politeness.
- Remain civil throughout your discourse, especially with people you disagree with.
Find the Facts
The goal of intellectual honesty is to determine facts and communicate them accurately. This requires a clear intent to uncover the facts wherever they may lead and skill in investigating, researching, evaluating, interpreting, and reporting evidence.
- Reality exists,
- we live in the real world,
- We can explore, investigate, examine, observe, measure, and probe that real world,
- You and I, and everyone we know or will ever meet, all live in the same universe, and
- The most certain of all basic principles is that contradictory propositions are not true simultaneously,
then when we use reliable methods for exploring reality, we will converge on matters of fact.
Take care to discover facts and face them squarely, especially when they are inconvenient or difficult to learn.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on facing facts.
- Carefully distinguish among fact, belief, feelings, and opinions,
- Carefully distinguish between reality and perception, objective reality, and subjective reality,
- Carefully distinguish among facts, controversy, and taste,
- Rely on the unity of knowledge as a consistency check
- Distinguish between Scientific theory and just a theory,
- Understand observational error,
- Describe the epistemologies—ways of knowing—used in the work,
- Carefully distinguish among science, paranormal events, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory.
- Use reality as the objective arbiter of disputes.
As we go about our lives we inevitably encounter clues that tell us something about the world we live in. Each of these clues is a piece of evidence that provides some glimpse of reality, however it is up to us to assess the quality of that evidence, to interpret that evidence, and to constantly assemble a lifetime of evidence gathering into a coherent description of our world. That model of our world continues to expand and evolve as we become aware of new evidence and gain new insights. We are constantly striving to better understand the full extent of reality.
Evidence can be broadly defined as anything presented to support an assertion. With such a broad range of evidence available it becomes difficult to determine the meaning of any particular piece of evidence. When evaluating evidence, it is natural to ask: What forms of evidence are more reliable than others? How can we best draw reliable conclusions from evidence? How can evidence be interpreted reliably? How does new evidence fit into, or change, my existing coherent concepts of the real world?
- Complete the Wikiversity course on evaluating evidence.
- Assess the quality of evidence being relied on or presented,
- Evaluate various forms of evidence relied upon,
- Weigh the value of one particular piece of evidence against another,
- Assess what each piece of evidence reveals about the observer, and what is being observed,
- Continue to gain a stronger, deeper, broader, more accurate, and more coherent understanding of reality,
- Understand the interplay among evidence, your current beliefs, and your current worldview,
- Identify and avoid manufactured controversies,
- Identify bullshit and dismiss it along with other nonsense.
Certain approaches to examining reality are reliable ways of learning about the universe we live in. Although these approaches are described here as “Thinking Scientifically” they are useful for reliably determining factual information in a variety of areas including the sciences, historical research, journalism, forensic investigations, legal proceedings, economics, policy development, making personal or business decisions, solving problems, choosing beliefs, and evaluating moral alternatives.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on Thinking Scientifically.
- Practice thinking scientifically.
- Choose reliable ways of knowing
A fallacy is an of error in reasoning. We can learn to identify and name common fallacies and avoid or correct them as they occur. Fallacies often go unrecognized and unchallenged. Fallacies may be created unintentionally, or they may be created with the intent to deceive other people. We think more clearly when we can identify fallacies and correct the underlying logic error. We can avoid committing fallacies by developing critical thinking.
Exploring inconsistencies can bring us to the threshold of insight. Identify inconsistencies, correct the error, and use correct reasoning.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on recognizing fallacies.
- Identify and challenge invalid arguments as you encounter them,
- Recognize common fallacies,
- Name and analyze common errors in reasoning,
- Describe inconsistencies,
- Identify fallacies in real arguments and work to correct them,
- Think more clearly.
Seek True Beliefs
Beliefs that are true are those that correspond to reality. Because each of us can choose our own beliefs, we can decide to choose true beliefs. Intellectual virtues are motivations toward true beliefs. Intellectual virtues are the character traits of a good thinker or learner. Intellectual honestly requires the excellent application of the intellectual virtues.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on seeking true beliefs.
- Improve your own practice of the intellectual virtues,
- Explore your motivations toward true beliefs. Ensure your primary motivation is toward true beliefs.
- Learn how to learn,
- Increase your cognitive contact with reality,
- Attain a firm basis for evaluating beliefs,
- Take personal responsibility for the beliefs you hold,
- Attain true beliefs,
- Dismiss untrue beliefs,
- Embrace reality as our common ground.
Declare Our Theories of Knowledge
When we make some factual claim or declarative statement, we have a duty to explain how we came to believe it is true. The consistent method we use to decide what is true and what is false is our theory of knowledge.
Since you have chosen your beliefs, you must have some theory of knowledge in some form, however it is unlikely you have given it much thought, written it down, tested it, refined it, or applied it conscientiously to evaluating your own beliefs.
Develop your own well-considered rules for deciding what to believe. These rules are your theory of knowledge, and when you have developed your own theory of knowledge you will finally know how you know.
When disagreements arise, it is helpful to discuss how you have come to your beliefs. This requires you to describe your theory of knowledge—the process you consistently follow to determine if something is most likely true or false.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on knowing how you know.
- Examine how you decide what you believe.
- Explore the range of more reliable and less reliable information sources you use to form your beliefs,
- Use the most reliable information sources available for important decision making or public communications.
- Develop your own Theory of Knowledge,
- Test and refine your Theory of Knowledge,
- Apply your Theory of Knowledge to improve the accuracy and consistency of your beliefs,
- Align your beliefs with reality.
- When you encounter a disagreement during a dialogue session, take time to describe your theory of knowledge. Unreliable ways of knowing will result in arbitrary beliefs. If you decide your beliefs are unreliable, then take this opportunity to refine your theory of knowledge.
Even as disagreements are identified and explored and passions become heated, it is essential that respect for all participants increase throughout each encounter. Name calling, bickering, sniping, personal attacks, snide remarks, and insults are forbidden during each intellectually honest encounter.
Earn trust by being trustworthy.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on Earning Trust.
- Be trustworthy.
Respecting others requires that we treat all people with dignity.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on dignity.
- Treat others with dignity throughout each encounter, especially when disagreements arise. Disagree without being disrespectful.
- Do not tolerate actions or inactions that disrespect others.
- Expect others to treat you with dignity.
- Draw on your capacity for resilience when faced with indignity, doing your best to respond constructively and avoid defeat, resignation, hate, or revenge.
We explore ideas to gain new insights. We share ideas with others to provide new insights. Dialogue, contrasted with debate or declaration, is the communication mode intended to increase insight rather than to persuade or win an argument. Dialogue requires that we listen carefully to others. It also requires that we clearly advocate true beliefs.
Dialogue is a unique form of communication because the purpose of dialogue is to seek insight, rather than to win an argument.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on practicing dialogue.
- Recognize various forms of communication as you encounter them.
- Understand the benefits of using dialogue to communicate.
- Balance inquiry and advocacy.
- Learn to use dialogue as your preferred method of communication.
- Experience a synthesis and interweaving of ideas.
- Gain insight as you dialogue with others.
Find Common Ground
We can learn to transcend conflict rather than be consumed by it.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on transcending conflict.
- Understand the emotions inherent in conflict,
- Discover the goals of each party to the conflict,
- Choose a strategy for addressing the conflict,
- Seek opportunities to transcend the conflict.
- Complete the Wikiversity course on Finding Common Ground.
- Find common ground.
- Complete the Wikiversity curriculum on Coming Together.
- Come together.
Recognizing the importance of intellectual honesty, we need to ask, why is it so difficult to attain consistently?
Several aspects of human nature require us to overcome various challenges to attain intellectual honesty. These include:
- Egocentrism is the inability to differentiate between self and other. A person who is egocentric believes they are the center of attention.
- Tribalism is the state of being organized in or an advocate for a tribe or tribes. In terms of conformity, tribalism may also refer in popular cultural terms to a way of thinking or behaving in which people are loyal to their social group. Tribalism promotes group loyalty, and motivates competition, social status, prestige, alliances, politics, nationalism, social group formation, and class identities.
- Laziness—failing to persevere and dig deeper, read another research report, investigate deeper, resolve that pesky anomaly, and do all the hard work it requires to ensure an accurate communication.
- Dramatic instincts often allow emotional responses to overwhelm more rational, considered, and accurate appraisals.
- Peer Pressure can result in changing a person's attitudes, values, or behaviors to conform to those of an influencing group or individual.
- We are inclined to trust statements made by people we regard as friends. This gullibility can be easily exploited by people who appear to be your friends because they want you to believe their untrue statements. This often happens on social media, in advertising, as propaganda, from ideologically driven news sources, and in many other instances.
- Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Confirmation bias can blind us to personal biases that are distracting us from a truly honest and objective assessment.
- Self-deception is a process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence and logical argument. Self-deception involves convincing oneself of a truth (or lack of truth) so that one does not reveal any self-knowledge of the deception.
- Hubris is a dangerous overconfidence combined with arrogance.
- The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is.
- Belief perseverance is maintaining a belief despite new information that firmly contradicts it
- Attention Seeking is behaving in a way that is likely to elicit attention, usually to hearten oneself by being in the limelight or to elicit validation from others.
- Scapegoating is the practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment. It is an example of the fallacy of the single cause.
- Motivated reasoning is an emotion-biased decision-making phenomenon describing the role of motivation in decision-making and attitude change in a number of paradigms, including: (1) Cognitive dissonance reduction, (2) Beliefs about others on whom one's own outcomes depend, and (3) Evaluation of evidence related to one's own outcomes.
- A conflict of interest is a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, in situations where serving one the interests could involve working against one of the other interests. Upton Sinclair remarked "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
- Loyalty is a firm and consistent allegiance to and support of a person, group, or cause. Loyalty can conflict with intellectual honesty if loyalty to a cause diverges from the disinterested pursuit of a truly honest and objective assessment.
- Postmodern philosophy challenges the existence of objective natural reality and proposes that logic and reason are mere conceptual constructs that are not universally valid. Beliefs that are untethered to reality and immune to reason can drift anywhere.
- Notice when any of the obstacles described above is making it difficult for you to be intellectually honest.
- Resolve to prevail, overcome the obstacle, and be intellectually honest.
Dishonesty is the alternative to intellectual honesty. Learn to identify dishonesty and challenge it in yourself and others. Common forms of intellectual dishonesty include:
- Plagiarism—the wrongful appropriation of others language, thought, ideas, or expressions,
- Selective Reporting—Selecting and reporting only the information that supports a single point of view or conclusion. This includes publication bias, media bias, and various forms of censorship.
- Disinformation—spreading false information with the intent to deceive.
- Fabrication, including falsifying data—incorrectly reporting results or selectively omitting data in an attempt to prove a hypothesis or to support a position.
- Logical fallacies—errors in reasoning often go unrecognized and unchallenged.
- Applying double standards—using different sets of principles for similar situations
- Using false analogies—making unsound comparisons,
- Exaggeration and overgeneralization—stating an inductive generalization based on insufficient evidence,
- Presenting straw man arguments—giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent,
- Poisoning the well—sharing irrelevant or untrue adverse information about the presenter,
- Quoting out of context—removing a passage from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning,
- Bias—Silently omitting, suppressing, excluding, or discounting evidence or viewpoints contrary to the argument you are making or the ideology you are defending. Bias is a failure to remain objective and maintain a neutral point of view.
- Statistical Bias—Drawing conclusions from an unrepresentative sample.
- Cherry picking—pointing to individual cases or data that appear to confirm a particular position while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.
- Half-truths—making a deceptive statement that includes some element of truth,
- Data Dredging—presenting patterns uncovered in data as being statistically significant without first devising a specific hypothesis as to the underlying causality.
- Be alert to dishonesty and identify it whenever you notice it.
- Challenge dishonesty in yourself and others.
- Be honest.
Exercise moral virtue, find the facts, increase respect, seek insights, and search for common ground whenever you share ideas with others. Because false beliefs are often harmful, we have moral obligation to seek true beliefs. Challenge dishonesty in yourself and others.
Students interested in learning more about intellectual honesty may be interested in the following materials:
- Rosling, Hans (April 3, 2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books. pp. 352. ISBN 978-1250107817.
- Hanson, Robin; Simler, Kevin (January 2, 2018). The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. Oxford University Press. pp. 416. ISBN 978-0190495992.
- Frankfurt, Harry G. (October 31, 2006). On Truth. Knopf. pp. 112. ISBN 978-0307264220.
- Haidt, Jonathan (February 12, 2013). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage. pp. 528. ISBN 978-0307455772.
- Wolpert, Lewis (July 17, 2008). Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0393332032.
- Wilson, Edward Osborne (March 30, 1999). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Vintage. pp. 384. ISBN 978-0679768678.
- Tavris, Carol; Aronson, Elliot (October 20, 2015). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books. pp. 400. ISBN 978-0544574786.
- McIntyre, Lee (February 16, 2018). Post-Truth. The MIT Press. pp. 240. ISBN 978-0262535045.
- Trivers, Robert (January 7, 2014). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books. pp. 416. ISBN 978-0465085972.
- Reich, Robert B. (February 20, 2018). The Common Good. Knopf. pp. 208. ISBN 978-0525520498.
- Ten Signs of Intellectual Honesty, by Mike Gene, November 14, 2010.
- 10 Signs of Intellectual DIShonesty, by Mike Gene adapted from A.robustus, November 18, 2010.
- Many Universities have policies on intellectual honesty or related topics such as research policies. See, for example, this Stanford University Research Policy Handbook.
- Intellectual Honesty, Thomas Metzinger, 2018, Sisyphis.
- Galef, Julia (April 13, 2021). The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't. pp. 288. ISBN 978-0735217553.
- Pinker, Steven (September 28, 2021). Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Viking. pp. 432. ISBN 978-0525561996.
I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.
- RationalWiki entry on Intellectual Honesty
- This sentence was provided by ChatGPT
- Intellectual Honesty by Louis M. Guenin See: http://guenin.med.harvard.edu/documents/intellectual%20honesty.pdf
- Edge 2017: what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?, Intellectual Honesty, Sam Harris,
- Rosling, Hans (April 3, 2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books. pp. 352. ISBN 978-1250107817.